What Do We Call the Decade?

The Washington Post asks a good question:

What should we call this decade? We have the ’80s, the ’90s, and . . . the “twenty hundreds”?

. . . The anxiety began in the mid-’90s, then stretched into the early whatchamacallits — Aughts? — and has now reached fever pitch as the decade winds to a close.

Dictionary editors, linguists and even radio DJs say we have entered a semantic black hole in which the English language failed to produce a term for the outgoing decade in the same way it has failed to find a catchy moniker for your former in-laws. (Out-laws never stuck.) The language is stumped. The Zeroes? The Ohs? The Oh-Ohs? Help!

I suspect the reason the usage remains uncertain is that we haven’t used a sound for the decade when pronouncing the years within it. When we pronounced the year “nineteen-NINETY-two” or “nineteen-NINETY-three,” we naturally called the decade “the nineties.” And a hundred years ago, when it was common to pronounce “1905” as “nineteen-AUGHT-five,” it was natural to call the decade “the aughts.”

But with the turn of the millennium, the common practice has been to leave the decade silent. Instead of pronouncing “2001” as “twenty-OH-one,” we pronounced it “two-thousand-one.” With the decade signifier having been silent for almost a decade, any new usage seems artificial. That’s my guess as to why there isn’t an intuitive name for the decade, anyway.

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